There is a Jewish story about a ruler with massive wealth and in particular, hundreds of sheep. This was a symbol of power, wealth and influence. Next door to the ruler lived a man and his family with one little pet lamb, his only sheep whom he cared for and loved as if it was his child. When one day the ruler decided to invite friends over for lamb stew he suddenly realised that, since the price for lamb was high and that he would lose the competitive edge at the next lamb auction, he devised a plan to “procure” his neighbour’s little pet. He decided that since his neighbour’s lamb was “available” he would create a law to procure it without cost to himself and justify its slaughter as being good for the common good and the flow of money into the community. The neighbour’s grief would be short lived while his success as a keen businessman would elevate, again, his profile among those who mattered. The only snag for this ruler was that there was a fearless prophet in the country who found out about this injustice and confronted him about his actions, asserting that his days and his paradigm of unjust dealings were intolerable and would be numbered. Such stories need to told regularly in every era, in every culture and particularly in this age of entitlement and rampant capitalism. Today, as for this heartless ruler, a heart of compassion has become an iron heart wherever we look. An inclusive conversation and elevation of the wisdom of the weak and poor has been killed off in favour of the mesmerising power of consumption and affect. The justification of success, growth and prosperity on the altar of ego, power and influence has blinded the world. The creative depth of a slower time and a more reflective approach to living has been sidelined as quaint and pre-digital, upheld by a convoluted language. Add to that a marriage between corporate wealth and a low taxing government mixed in with a highly paid public service held only by their security and leave entitlements then our little art enterprise is probably only one of many to experience the little lamb effect.
STORY 1: I recently prepared a quote for Brisbane City Council to provide a body of work for murals on pillars on the northern approach to the Go-Between Bridge across the Brisbane River. This was an exciting development for us at Jugglers. We have been working with BCC and other organisations to provide public art installations in Brisbane since 2005 with in general, reasonable success. My passion is to use these opportunities for training, mentoring and raising the standard of modern art in the public domain. We have always advocated for the best price for the artists’ design and onsite time with 12% Admin costs to Jugglers and only lately, some payment for supervision and management. The sense of disappointment was overwhelming when after 7 weeks of silence I was told that another offer that “BCC could not refuse” – the project was not an open tender project! – had come along and had gazumped our quote. My intention was that our quote was a working draft and that it could be negotiated down. I had structured it so that we could adapt to the Council’s budget. A large international circus had made an offer to BCC to gift a piece of Street Art to the city and, instead of asking us if we could be the artists and agency, BCC had gone with the recommended artist who had little experience in this kind of art and has been paid to install a rather boring piece of decoration. The talk on the street is that the money spent by the circus on this piece was more than our quote and my model of mentoring and the installation of art by experienced and respected muralists was an opportunity missed. I understand that this is business but there was something more disappointing here, something unjust about the process and the obvious lack of vision from Council for a vibrant city they talk so much about. I have since moved Jugglers on from such projects opting for a model where BCC can liaise directly with a more business savvy muralist community. The loss is that our expertise and mentoring model, though slower, is lost to the council’s obsession with being “cool” and “like Melbourne.”
STORY 2: Jugglers hosted a fund raising art show for a private school from the north-side of Brisbane last month. We were invited to both provide the art prize [$500], a free show at Jugglers over the next 12 months for the winner and to consider opening up our space for their show. So far so good. We agreed to this and one of our board members contributed the $500 for the prize. At the first committee meeting in a leafy aspirational suburb I realised that they saw us not as an organisation that was partly dependant on donations to survive but as an organisation that was their servant. Now if this school had been run by the Edmund Rice centre or had been a struggling aboriginal organisation then I would have not hesitated to offer them a free space and time and assist with the curating of the show. But this was a private school where committee members take their family overseas to Europe for a three week holiday. We were also compelled to agree that Jugglers would not take any commission on sales – we normally take 22% – but that all sales would be commissioned to the school at 25% as a means to raise funds for their art department. For some reason it seems easier to work with those who are poor, who have tasted poverty recently or who live in the paradigm of justice and kindness. Here there was no sense of empathy or sense of awareness to converse about what would be best for us and them. They did eventually reluctantly agree to [a reduced] fee for both upstairs and downstairs gallery spaces. Excuse this as disorganisation, temperament extremism or committee dysfunction maybe but my experience tells me otherwise. The takings for the night on art sales was $21,000, a record figure. Given the well heeled crowd and the traditional but buyable art by well known Brisbane artists this was a god send for conservative leafiness! The token aboriginal artist and art auction was mixed for me as her art was worthy and sold well but there was still a sense of this school’s colonising collusion.
REFLECTION: The little lamb bleats and is told to bugger off or it will get its throat cut! I am reticent to make my own observations in the event it looks like sour grapes but this happens regularly to us albeit all intertwined with the positive impacts and rich history we have been able to be a part of, structure and be taken up into. What I see is that rampant capitalism, consumption, entitlement and privilege have infected our society and our cultural development with a cancerous iron heart unable to see its own way except to prop up its own progression and self aggrandizement. A better world is possible and a better culture is needed where conversation between adults rather than dominance by an under developed parental authoritarianism is normal. Goals to succeed in their strategy in both examples here are driven by a blindness to the other that is necessary in order to be seen to be successful by whoever they want accolades from. The cheap deal for BCC and the private school was an agenda for something that appears laudable but when it sacrifices the one little lamb for its own success, it has the prophet getting out of his bed and beginning his journey towards confrontation.
This little animation from Auckland speaks to the principle of systemic privilege:
NOTES: There are other stories that bear the same blindness to what the small guy can bring to cultural depth and development including Jugglers’ experience with The Shed at Hamilton Northshore and the big end of town’s money proposition to the Queensland Government and the selling off of 4 Queensland Rail houses used for Art Studios for 5 years by Jugglers. All these decisions by Government are business decisions and can be justified as such but the loss of what we – and others like us – can bring in exchange for the addition of what makes a quick buck with a veneer of “culture” is what needs to be investigated with more rigor.